BY CHARLES “CHUCK” FRENCH
December 31, 2011, is a day that demonstrated the valued effects training has had on the members of the Tulsa (OK) Fire Department. A true cultural change within the mindset of our members became evident by the events that transpired that day. As some of you reading this may remember, this is the day on which our department came as close as an organization can to losing a firefighter during a residential structure fire. However, the actions taken by the members operating on the scene that day made the difference between a line-of-duty death (LODD) and a positive outcome. Training was a key component that day, and it can make a difference. It can change the cultural mindset of a department and save lives on the front end.
This article is about the difference training can make within your organization-how it can positively affect department members by changing the organization’s cultural mindset.
What is organizational culture? How does it affect each of us within the fire service? Organizational culture can be defined as a collection of values and norms common among people and groups in an organization. Those commonly shared values and norms control the way we interact with each other and with others outside of our organization. Does this sound similar to your organization?
We have hundreds of cultural norms we all share within our respective departments-some good and some not so good. One norm that comes to mind is how we typically deal with new hires after academy, during their probationary periods. How many times have we said to our new recruits, “Now, let me show you how we really do things around here”? What about those attitudes we have toward training in general, statements like, “Why do we need this training?” and “I had this 20 years ago; why are we doing this training again?” Do you think nothing has changed much in that timeframe? Training officers face these statements and attitudes daily. We have all shared or witnessed the cultural norms that exist in the fire service.
Many changes have taken place that affect the fire service, and we’ll continue to see change whether we like it or not. We always complain about change because we are human beings. We like routine, set patterns. When those routines are disrupted, we get upset and point the finger at whatever it is that seems to be the problem. During training sessions, I’ve even had firefighters throw tradition under the bus when dealing with why we shouldn’t change our operations. Can you really argue tradition against life safety? Some folks do; but in my mind, it’s a losing battle. I’m all about keeping the traditions of the fire service alive; however, we cannot let negative cultural mindsets spread throughout our departments and contribute to a cycle of unwanted behaviors.
What is traditionalism? It’s basically the views an organizational culture has of itself that are shared through stories, rituals, and symbols. Last time I checked, no one was arguing to change the Maltese Cross as the symbol of the fire service. However, if your operations are unsafe on a fire scene because of your organizational cultural norms, that is a problem lying in wait. That’s not tradition; it is ignorance.
Tulsa Firefighter James O’Neal, a 14-year veteran of our department, responded to a residential structure fire at 19:30 hours on December 31, 2011. He was a member of a three-person crew on Engine 19, the first company on scene for a house fire with smoke showing. O’Neal and his crew were assigned to stretch the first line in performing interior fire attack; the majority of the fire was toward the rear of the 1,200-square-foot home. Once they were inside the structure, approximately two minutes and 30 seconds after their arrival, a Mayday call was made for a down firefighter. O’Neal had experienced some type of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) malfunction. It’s unclear at this time what specifically happened. However, O’Neal’s captain recognized that his firefighter was in trouble, tried to determine what was wrong, and then quickly realized he needed to call a Mayday. The Mayday call was made in time to get crews operating on the scene to help pull O’Neal from the house fire. Unfortunately, O’Neal had gone into cardiac arrest. Once outside, the crews worked rapidly to revive him, using advanced life support capabilities.
O’Neal was transported to the hospital and was admitted into the intensive care unit (ICU) in critical condition. After medical treatment and constant observation by the medical staff, O’Neal was moved from the ICU to a regular room. After spending approximately a week in the hospital, he spent a few months recovering while on light duty. He has returned to full duty and is back on Engine 19.
All of the firefighters on the scene that day performed above and beyond the call of duty during the rescue efforts to save O’Neal’s life. The successful outcome was the result of having the right people in the right place during this incident. The key difference in this story, however, is the simple fact that the Mayday call was delivered in a timely fashion, which saved a fellow firefighter’s life. His captain disclosed later at the hospital that night to one of our training officers that if we had not received Mayday training, he would never have made the call that saved O’Neal’s life. That is a tremendously powerful statement regarding the impact training has had on this member of our department. As I stated earlier, training can make a difference in changing the culture of an organization. The training that this captain participated in became a valuable lifesaving skill that resulted in a successful outcome for one of our own members.
How does organizational change take place, especially in an organization such as the fire service where we have grown accustomed to the way we typically operate? We all understand that change in the fire service can be one of the most challenging subjects we can face: “Changing an organization’s culture is one of the most difficult leadership challenges. That’s because an organization’s culture comprises an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications, practices, attitudes, and assumptions.”1
Change in the fire service typically takes place after a significant event occurs. This is unfortunate because change is often based on a fire fatality, an LODD, or an extreme incident resulting in injuries such as the O’Neal incident. It is also a reactive approach to change, which is not the proactive attitude we preach so often in the fire service.
Understandably, there are instances where this approach cannot be avoided because we are unaware of what practices may cause us harm. This is especially true when we buy into organizational cultural mindsets like “this is the way we always do things.” Typically, an organizational culture is a direct reflection of the current management style.2 How often have we conducted business as usual because that’s the way we were taught to do it in the field or on the job? Of course, not all of what we learn on the job is bad, but it can be detrimental if the basics are taught incorrectly, which can lead to an inbred culture with no outside influence to consider.
I heard a story a few years ago from some retired firefighters about entries they used to make in the log book at the fire stations. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the company officers would put in the number of blocks the engine or ladder would drive while responding to an alarm. One day a firefighter asked, “Hey, Cap, why do we have to log the number of blocks we run after each call?” The captain, of course, gave the standard answer, “Because that’s what we have always done.” The reality is the reason the blocks were counted was a throwback to the days when the horses pulled the pumpers. That was how they determined how much hay to feed the horses. The horses went away, but the practice didn’t. That’s a perfect example of the power an organization culture can have, especially when nobody questions the practices.
HURDLES FOR CHANGE
For change to take place within an organization, four hurdles must be recognized and addressed.3
- Cognitive component. People need to have an understanding of why change must take place. As a leader within your organization, you must have a solid foundation backing up your reasons for the changes you seek. Your foundation can come from National Fire Protection Association standards, statistics, case studies, lawsuits, safety practices, or any other solid confirmation you can use to build your reasons for change.
- Possible shift of resources. The change may involve taking resources from one area and applying them to other areas. The resources may not always be physical or budgetary items and could mean taking away from various types of operational practices on the fireground.
As an example, we just conducted an air management drill with our department that brings us up-to-date with NFPA 1404, Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training. The first issue our personnel had with the training is that some of the firefighters felt we were cutting into their work cycle on the fireground because the standard mandates that firefighters leave the immediately dangerous to life or health atmosphere prior to the sounding of the low-air alarm. During the hands-on portion, we demonstrated with the crews how to work more efficiently by rotating personnel during work cycles to conserve air. Therefore, during training we increased their abilities, allowing them to stay inside the structure for similar time frames. We basically changed their resources (work habits) to better suit the changes we wanted to make to have an effective air management program.
- Acceptance of change. This can be the most difficult aspect, getting members to accept change. It’s the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” That’s why your foundation for change must be solid. Without a strong enough foundation to back up your reason for change, you’ll get nowhere with your ideas.
- Organizational politics. Like it or not, politics exist at all levels within an organization. You must recognize the key players and find out how to effectively get them on board, which may or may not happen. If you do get their help, it can make a huge difference. Remember, you will have to deal with the members who formally hold a position of leadership and those who are informal leaders who are able to influence change.
Once people realize that a transformation in current practices must occur to have organizational success, change will take place, but not before the organization takes the following steps:
- Understands the current organizational culture-how it operates.
- Decides in which direction it wants to go-what the organizational culture should look like to have the right support and success.
- Chooses to change members’ behavior to create the desired organizational change.
People within an organizational culture have to unlearn the old values, beliefs, and behaviors before they can accept learning new ones. (2) This means there will be conflicting views between the current cultural practices (belief system) and the new organizational culture being developed. This may explain why the fire service is so adverse to change: It takes us years to adapt in some cases because we have a heritage that we strongly uphold.
In addition, organizational change will not occur without executive support and training. The administration must support the change needed in the organizational culture. This means top-down support; otherwise the bottom-up support will not buy into the plan. Those in the upper echelon must show they support the change through their actions and behaviors, not just with words. Once the new behaviors have been introduced, it is extremely important that the executives constantly support the needed changes.
Training is the venue in which behavioral changes take place and where the desired behavioral outcomes are taught. This is also the time when training personnel model new techniques, skills, and practices. Behavioral change can happen through quality training programs. Training personnel must clearly understand what is expected of them. They must also know what the skills (new behaviors) are so they can perform them effectively to meet those expectations. Training becomes vital because it is the way to communicate the expectations and teach new behaviors.
The training must meet specific criteria. It must become a priority within the organization. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Too many times when budgets get tight, training is the first place financial cuts are made. However, making training a priority not only within the department but also among all members will contribute greatly to creating successful organizational change.
Focus on quality, not quantity. Typically, personnel are more receptive to quality training. They become motivated, and their desire to participate in training increases. In our department, members usually have no problem letting us know if our training program is on target or not. When the training is of good quality, the attitudes improve, making the training environment someplace personnel want to be vs. someplace they dread being.
Training must be applicable to your personnel. You must get their buy-in. If you cannot show how the training program will improve their skill set, the training typically will not be well received. Firefighters, whether they want to admit it or not, want to acquire a superior set of firefighting skills. They often embrace anything that increases their personal abilities, which increases their motivation to learn new behaviors. When these new behaviors are welcomed, effective organizational change starts to take place.
Of course, the training officers must be adequately credentialed and highly skilled instructors. They are vital to delivering quality training to your personnel. If your training staff is not on board with creating change or delivering quality training programs, effective organizational change will never occur. Training officers should demonstrate through their actions all the qualities they would like to see in their personnel. To be effective change agents, they must serve as role models for department members.
Fire departments have a rich tradition with a unique organizational culture. The fire service should proudly embrace its rich tradition, but it should not allow tradition to interfere with effecting needed change. Looking at our history, we note that we have a pattern of challenging change, whether it involved self-contained breathing apparatus, incident command, emergency medical service, calling Maydays, or developing and enforcing good air management practices. Change is possible, even though changing an organization’s culture is a monumental task. Change is going to happen whether we like it or not. We should embrace change and guide its progress so that we gain from its benefits. Positive change can provide benefits such as improved life safety for us and those we serve. Don’t take my word for it. Ask those who have been saved by changes made in their organizations. Ask Firefighter O’Neal if he thinks change is important.
If you or your department has not yet participated in Mayday training, I challenge you to be a change agent in your department. Go to the National Fire Academy’s Calling the Mayday: Hands-on Training for Firefighters: http://apps.usfa.fema.gov/nfacourses/catalog/details/537. Learn how you can get this free and important training for your department.
Also, if you have not gotten up to speed on NFPA 1404 (the mandate for air management practices), information is available at http://ww.nfpa.org.
1. Denning, Steven. (2011). How Do You Change an Organizational Culture? Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevendenning/2011/07/03/how-to-change-an-organizational-culture/.
2. Healthfield, Susan M. (2009). How to Change Your Culture: Organizational Change. Retrieved from http://humanresources.about.com/od/organizationalculture/a/culture_change.htm.
3. Murray, Alan. (2010). How to Change Your Organizations Culture. Retrieved from http://guides.wsj.com/management/innovations/how-to-change-your-organizations-culture/.
● CHARLES “CHUCK” FRENCH is a 14-year veteran of the Tulsa (OK) Fire Department, where he is a captain and the training officer. He has a master’s degree in fire and emergency management from Oklahoma State University and has been a fire service instructor in advanced fire behavior and technical rescue for the past seven years.
Charles “Chuck” French will present “Manage Your Air, Manage Your Survival” on Wednesday, April 24, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at FDIC 2013 in Indianapolis.
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